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As winter approaches, with energy bills remaining stubbornly high, Libraries Connected Chief Executive Isobel Hunter says the Warm Welcome Campaign is more relevant than ever.

Man working in library

Libraries Connected

Since their inception in the 1850s, public libraries have offered shelter and warmth to the most vulnerable. So when the idea of ‘warm banks’ – free community venues where people could keep warm during the energy crisis – was first proposed last year, library staff took no convincing to get involved.

For public libraries, providing a warm space and a warm welcome during the cold winter months was nothing new. What did feel new, however, was the scale of demand (driven by the worst cost-of-living crisis in 70 years) and the growing recognition – from local and national politicians, the media and the public – of the vital community role that libraries play.

These warm spaces offered much more than brief respite from the cold, however. As always, library workers went out of their way to offer targeted support to those who needed it most. For some, that was a hot drink and a chat. For others it was a specially programmed exhibition, performance or children’s activity. 

Many libraries gave out blankets and hot water bottles, hosted food banks or ran workshops on debt management. And for the army of remote workers unable to heat a home office all day, libraries offered free wi-fi, desk space and a comfortable working environment.

The national conversation has moved on

During the Christmas holidays, some libraries were even able to provide hot food, games and festive gifts for children. “This library is a lifesaver,” one parent told staff at a library in Sandwell, West Midlands. “If it wasn’t for the library over the holidays, I was scared the kids would go hungry. They’ve come here, had a hot drink and something to eat and gone home with a full belly.”

And libraries will do it all again this winter. A recent survey of our members found that 93% of library services were certain to be part of a warm spaces scheme. Strikingly, 79% expected demand for their warm spaces to be the same or higher than last year. None expected it to be lower. While the national conversation may have moved on from the cost-of-living crisis, millions are still living through it and need our support.

Of course, it’s not only libraries – the whole of the cultural sector, including museums, theatres and concert halls, enthusiastically opened its doors to those seeking heat and help last winter and will do so again in the colder months ahead. Led by the Warm Welcome Campaign, of which Libraries Connected is a partner, at least 7,000 venues stepped up to offer warmth and company last year. 

Photo: Libraries Connected

Uniquely placed to help

But public libraries are uniquely placed to help. There are almost 4,000 across the UK - in village squares, high streets, city centres, housing estates, even shopping centres. Staffed by compassionate experts, they have a long history of providing a free safe space. 

We know, for example, that they are particularly valued by those experiencing homelessness, who can read, get online, use the toilet or charge their phone without intrusive or difficult questions. And because libraries are plugged in to a network of local services – from health and housing to employment and digital skills - they can help vulnerable users find the right help at the right time. 

While the impetus for the warm spaces movement came from soaring energy prices, it soon became apparent that people were using them not only to keep warm but to find company, conversation and connection. That’s why this year public libraries, and all warm spaces, will focus particularly on those experiencing loneliness and isolation. For some, a visit to their local warm space will be the first human contact they have had for months.

A noble gesture?

This reflects the wider work that libraries – and the rest of the cultural sector - have been doing to address social isolation in their communities. The Know Your Neighbourhood Fund, for example, is a £30m package of DCMS funding designed to widen participation in volunteering and tackle loneliness in 27 disadvantaged areas across England. Public libraries have received a share of £2.5m - other recipients include museums, arts organisations and charities. 

Understandably some have cautioned that warm spaces, while a noble gesture, would not exist in a just society. After all, hasn’t something has gone badly wrong when the vulnerable are forced to seek warmth and company in libraries? Many library workers would agree. But as long as the need exists, libraries will be there to meet it as best they can – to offer compassion and connection in difficult times.

And while the circumstances that gave rise to the warm spaces movement may be deplorable, we hope it will lead to positive and long-lasting change - a fairer and friendlier society, where human connection is valued and cherished. We hope too that public libraries, by proving their worth as a vital community resource, will emerge stronger, more resilient and more valued. 

There is a growing body of evidence detailing the far-reaching social and economic impact of libraries. As local government faces yet more budget cuts, it is more important than ever to make the case for libraries and their potential to change lives.

Isobel Hunter MBE is Chief Executive of Libraries Connected.
 @libsconnected | @HunterIsobel

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Headshot of Isobel Hunter